You won’t find a city named Narrows Gate on any map; in our world, it’s called “Hoboken” and it’s in New Jersey. It’s part of the New York metropolitan area and nicknamed “the Mile Square City.” For our purposes, that is all you need to know about Hoboken. What you should know about Narrows Gate is that it’s the name of Jim Fusilli’s blockbuster novel, an instant classic in print for the first time.
"[Fusilli's] full arsenal of talent is on display here --- from unforgettable characterization to complex but easily followed plots, to turns of phrase that you will underline, note, mark or copy, and quote to others."
NARROWS GATE was originally conceptualized and presented as an audio book; it was (is) a unique work of art that somehow captures the bygone days of radio drama, where the listener’s imagination is buoyed and inspired by the voices of the presenters. Its second coming in print form is an equal blessing; print and audio each have their own unique strengths, and in print form, the book is an explosive gallop for the mind, a joy that you won’t be able to read fast enough and will leave you wishing for more at its conclusion.
The novel takes place during the middle of the 20th century, roughly between the early 1930s and late 1940s. Its title is a working-class Italian neighborhood where wise guys are the silent but very visible rulers, feared by most and emulated by some. The plot follows the very different lives of three of Narrows Gate’s sons.
William “Bebe” Rosiglino is regarded as a chump during his boyhood, unable to keep a job or a friend. One day, however, his mother, the irrepressible Hennie, makes an incredible discovery: her son can sing. Bebe all too quickly becomes Billy Marsala, graduating from a singing waiter at supper clubs to headlining concert halls and topping the record charts. Mercurial and impulsive in temperament, Marsala would just as soon leave the world of Narrows Gate behind, but he keeps forgetting that he is married to the mob, both figuratively and literally, which will haunt him throughout the ups and downs of his career.
Sal Benno does not seem destined for great things, and he really doesn’t seem to mind. Orphaned at an early age, and the victim of tragic circumstances in more ways than one, he is content to take life as it comes, working in his uncle’s neighborhood market and hanging out with his best friend, Leo Bell. When Benno is seemingly picked off the street to work for Frankie Fortune, the man who runs the Narrows Gate crew, Benno can hardly believe his good fortune, even if his work is that of a lowly bagman. At least at first.
Bell is concerned about Benno and the path toward which his lifelong friend appears to be headed. He, on the other hand, seems to be destined for great things. After enlisting in the Army shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bell is literally plucked out of the barracks to work for a secret government agency known as the Office of Strategic Services. His superiors are so impressed with his work that they want him to continue working for them at the conclusion of the war, keeping tabs on the very people to whom his best friend Benno seems to be drawn. Their friendship is a great and beautiful thing, and may well be ripped asunder. Or not. One thing is for certain: Start reading NARROWS GATE in the evening, and you will do so until the next morning in an effort to find out. This is a big book that reads with the speed of a short story.
If you are familiar with Fusilli’s past work, particularly his award-winning Terry Orr novels, NARROWS GATE will come as a revelation to you. This is unlike what Fusilli has previously done, told in a totally different voice, one that speaks from the dead center of a very bad street where flowers nonetheless struggle to bloom. His full arsenal of talent is on display here --- from unforgettable characterization to complex but easily followed plots, to turns of phrase that you will underline, note, mark or copy, and quote to others. Comparisons to The Godfather are inevitable, but these are inaccurate and unfair. While the mob figures prominently here, the book is ultimately about a neighborhood and the people who make it what it is.
I was reminded of a quote I read decades ago by Dion DiMucci: “They say you can’t go home again?! Ha! Try to leave!” Fusilli knows Narrows Gate, and he captures a time and a place in a manner and to a degree that few others have been able to accomplish. Do NOT miss reading this one.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 3, 2011